The Biden administration announced Thursday it will not rejoin a major arms agreement—the Open Skies Treaty—blaming alleged violations by Russia.
“This decision is unfortunate,” tweeted Shannon Bugos, research associate with the Arms Control Association, in response to the news.
The international agreement was signed in 1992 and entered into force in 2002. It allows its over 30 state parties to conduct unarmed aerial observation flights over each others’ territories and, according to its proponents, builds trust and lessens the risk of accidental war.
“Open Skies is a multilateral treaty to help prevent a miscommunication or lack of transparency from spiraling into full-fledged conflict or war,” Jon Wolfsthal, senior advisor to anti-nuclear weapons group Global Zero, said Thursday.
“It has helped keep the peace for decades,” he continued. “It was a mistake for [former President Donald] Trump to withdraw from the treaty, and confirming the decision will make it harder for the Biden administration to reassure our allies that we have their backs, or that we can manage a potential crisis with Russia.”
In a Thursday statement, the State Department said the “United States regrets that the Treaty on Open Skies has been undermined by Russia’s violations.”
“In concluding its review of the treaty, the United States therefore does not intend to seek to rejoin it, given Russia’s failure to take any actions to return to compliance,” the statement added.
The Trump administration withdrew from the treaty in 2020, sparking criticism from nuclear experts and anti-war activists including Win Without War advocacy director Erica Fein, who warned at the time that the withdrawal “puts us further down the path of nuclear brinkmanship.”
Democratic lawmakers also criticized Trump’s move, as did then-presidential candidate Biden.
“Trump has doubled down on his short-sighted policy of going it alone and abandoning American leadership. With the world confronting the health and economic consequences of a global pandemic, the United States should be leading the international community, working with allies, and avoiding destabilizing actions,” Biden stated last year.
While acknowledging “real concerns” over Russian violations of the treaty, Biden added at the time that such violations “should be addressed not by withdrawing from the treaty, but by seeking to resolve them through the treaty’s implementation and dispute mechanism.”
Russia announced in January its intention to withdraw from the treaty.
The Thursday announcement comes just ahead of Biden’s June 16 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and means, as Reuters noted, “only one major arms control treaty between the nuclear powers—the New START treaty—will remain in place.” The Biden administration announced in February a five-year extension of that treaty.
Critics of Biden’s decision not to reenter the Open Skies Treaty included Kingston Reif, director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association.
“The gutting of the treaty,” he told NBC News, “reinforces the importance of the United States and Russia resuming a regular strategic stability and security dialogue and pursuing effective measures to reduce the risks of miscalculation and conflict.”
Moscow, meanwhile, said Biden’s move was “disappointing.”
This article has been updated to include comment from Wolfsthal.
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